I was born in November 1934 and I can’t remember very much about Christmas before the 2nd World War which started in September 1939 when I was rising four. Though I do recall, at some point getting a big box of bricks. They were different colours, and smooth and shiny, and all different shapes, so that you could build temples with pediments and columns, for instance! My younger sister and I always had stockings, old lisle stockings of Mum’s, which we were convinced came direct from Father Christmas. How Mum managed to find things to put in them during the War I don’t know! But she did, and I remember tiny tins, which must have been for petit fours or something, which she gave us as doll’s cooking dishes, and lots of clothes for our dolls and Teddies. Though they were always referred to as Bears, Teddies didn’t seem to fit somehow.
Once during the war my Granny and Grandad N (my Mum’s parents) came to stay, but only the once. Granny died in 1942, and after that Grandad N, plus my Aunt Rose, who was now looking after him at weekends, would both come for Christmas. Grandad lived on the north Kent Coast, and Aunt Rose was a teacher in Bromley, just south of London, neither area being good places to be during the war. Our Hertfordshire house was comparatively safe, though being only 20 miles north of London, we did see bombs, one of which fell on our first house, and later, the V1’s, or doodlebugs.
Grandad and Aunt Rose came by train, not easy then. Occasionally Aunt Rose would bring a turkey (very hard to come by then!), though perhaps it was only the once, and thus made a huge impression on me! My Dad and I would go down to the station to meet them both, and help carry their luggage back. We had no car then.
I loved having my Aunt Rose there, though she frightened me sometimes. Being a teacher she was a bit daunting, especially when she asked me about school. At that time I went to a private school, and I think she thought I was not being taught rigorously enough! (In retrospect, she might have been right, I had a lot of catching up to do when I went to the State Grammar School!)
Those Christmases from about 1944 and until about the late 1950’s I remember, with great fondness. To me it was exciting having family visit. I would help my mother with the cooking, as far as I could. I was very conscious it was extra work for her, and she found being the ‘little sister’ to my Aunt very difficult. In the evenings we would play cards – Newmarket, Sevens Happy Families, and the grown-ups would, inevitably, play Crib. Oh, the recriminations, and the disgust at getting “Ribs” in Crib!! I can still remember all the little rhymes and sayings – Morgan’s Orchard (2 pairs – who was Morgan???), Ribs in Crib (nothing there), Two for his heels, one for his knob, Fifteen two, fifteen four, count all night and you’ll make no more. It takes a game of crib now for me to remember all of them. Granddad Norris used to love his games of crib. After the games, they would always fancy a supper – cold ham, or turkey or whatever. Mum found this a bit of an imposition – she couldn’t see why anyone would want more food after a good dinner and tea!
Christmas Day was the real laugh! Granddad insisted on cooking the turkey – obviously no-one else could be trusted. He brought his big white apron, and was immensely tickled one year when someone made him a chef’s hat! The only trouble was he couldn’t understand the thermostat on Mum’s gas cooker! When the flame went down, because it had reached the right temperature, he thought the oven was cooling, and would turn it up. How the turkey always got cooked right is a bit of a mystery! But it did, and we had that, with stuffing, and cold ham, and sprouts, and roast potatoes and bread sauce (my job, when I was old enough), and then Christmas pudding and white sauce (also my job). Mum would try and wash up the dinner things whilst the white sauce was being made (so I must have been out in the kitchen too,) and would then serve it all up. We didn’t have wine, Dad being totally against any ‘strong drink’, but there was Sherry for the evening for Granddad and Aunt Rose. Every Christmas Day Dad would drive over to Harrow in North London, and fetch his father, Granddad C and Aunt Babs (another of Mum’s sisters) and Percy. Then at night he would take them back. Quite a journey, twice. The Crib games in the afternoons and evenings, with the three sisters and Granddad N, was a real cut-throat occasion, with ‘blood under the doors’ to use a Norris saying!
Like most homes at that time, there was no central heating., but we had a coal fire in the sitting room, which Aunt Rose used to find the fire very hot – I can see her now, fanning herself. Later on, when my sister and I were older, there were other visitors at Christmas – one year our cousins from New Zealand, Judith and Jennifer, turned up, complete with sleeping bags, and we had the whale of a time.
At the New Year it was the turn of Dad’s relations, and he would go and fetch Aunt Ada, Percy and his brother Bert over, plus Granddad C. This was a much more subdued occasion, though I loved Aunt Ada dearly. I don’t know how many years they came, it can’t have been all that many, as Aunt Ada was looking after the aged and blind Aunt Lizzie for many years.
We used to go over to see the Harrow relations quite regularly. Aunt Babs was always very sharp and sarcastic, the flat was full of cats, but I liked Percy. He smoked like a chimney, and his fingers were always brown from the cigarettes, but he was a good hearted soul. Then we would go over and see Aunt Ada in her little house near West Harrow Station. I never sorted out the relation between West Harrow and Rayners Lane – it always seemed a maze of streets to me. But Aunt Ada was lovely. Uncle Percy was a jolly fellow, but I was always a bit afraid of Bert – he had a cast in one eye, and I used to be a bit nervous of him. Aunt Ada was very good to me when I lived in London on my own. Visiting Granddad C was an unnerving experience. Everything was so cold, and dark and sort of rigid. He had a TV – one of the first, and we went over there to see the Coronation. Granddad C had some lovely things, and many of them were very valuable – it seems hard to understand why Dad and Mum got rid of everything as a job lot when he died. The things they kept were of no value at all – everything old just went. I was so sad about that.
Granddad’s house at Harrow was a little terrace house, with a long narrow garden at the back. He grew masses of apples, there were cordons all down the garden. Unfortunately they all seemed to be James Grieve apples, which are not keepers, so every year we had all these apples he pressed onto us, which we had to eat up. I think he grew other fruit, but it’s the apples I remember most.
I don’t remember Granny C very well, I think I was about 4 or 5 when she died. I just recall a very stiff sort of person. Granddad C was, I think, fond of my sister and me in a formal sort of way. He used to make rabbits out of his handkerchief, and let us listen to his big waistcoat watch. Every Christmas and birthday we got a Postal Order – initially for Half-a crown, 2/6d, (12p) but that bought quite a bit then! He was a strange man and immensely rude to Mum. He was also very deaf, and had one of those big old fashioned hearing aids, which whistled, and which he turned off if he didn’t want to hear what we were saying to him. Very annoying!
After Christmas I quite often went back to Kent with Aunt Rose and Granddad N. I loved this. We would go by train, of course, and take sandwiches for our lunch. Usually it was corned beef – which I still love. Mine had to be packed separately, as I didn’t like mustard. We generally had then round about Chatham! It was very exciting when we got to Whitstable, and saw the sea. It was grey and not very inviting, but always thrilling! I loved it down there. I must have gone down in the summer, too, as I can remember going swimming, and jumping off the big diving boards when the tide was right up. I knew all the shops in Herne Bay, would go to the Library and borrow books, and really got to know the place. Granddad would take me to the Park and feed the ducks – the smell of bits of bread and bacon rind will always bring back the Park to me. Aunt Rose showed me the terrace house, where they lived as girls (although Mum was very ashamed of this) and the school they went to. There were lots of old books at Granddad’s house including a lovely old Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book. I slept in the little front room, and adored the old fashioned dressing table, with its tiny drawers and curlicue wood carving.
Granddad N was a lovely man. He had been a Sargent Major in the First World War, and would sing all the old War songs – ‘Its a long way to Tipperary’, ‘The Quartermaster’s Stores’, and he loved Brass Bands. On Saturday afternoons at 5.0 pm the house had to be silent as he listened on his radio to the football results and checked off his coupon. Every morning, come hail, snow or sun, he made his ‘Quaker’ for breakfast (porridge). After breakfast he would shave himself with his cut-throat razor, which he stropped on a long piece of leather hanging on the wall of the larder cupboard. He waxed his moustache, and when he was all dressed up he was an extremely smart man, with a very military bearing. He would have hated the modern liking for casual clothes and ‘laid-back’ living.
Granddad and Aunt Rose loved Bowling, and were stalwarts of the local Bowling Club. They were very good, too, in their younger days. They would take me to the Bowling Club (especially when I was small) and I remember the Club making me an ‘honorary member’ and giving me a Bowling Club Badge. I had it for years, but it got lost. I was very sad about that. The Bowling Club fascinated me, as it was, to my mind, so secret in the Park, being hidden behind big hedges, and you had to go in by a special gate, for members only, accessed by a double-hedge entry, so passers-by could not see in.
Grandad N died, and for a while Aunt Rose was our only visitor at Christmas. Eventually she found the train journey too much, and stayed at her home. By this time our Christmas visitors were boyfriends/fiancés/husbands, and everything changed. As life does! In 1962 my parents retired down to Mum’s home town, just round the corner from Aunt Rose (well, a longish corner!) my sister and I were both married, with families, so it was our turn to move the beds around and have the visitors, and we started making our own Christmas memories.
(c) Copyright Gillian Peall